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Also Sprach Zarathustra - Violin Legend Midori


Program Notes


THURS MAY 4, 7:30 pm
SAT MAY 6, 8 pm

ROBERT TREVIÑO conductor | MIDORI violinist

LIGETI (1923-2006)

Concert Românesc (“Romanian Concerto”)

Allegro vivace
Adagio ma non troppo
Molto vivace

BRITTEN (1913-1976)

Concerto No. 1 for Violin and Orchestra, Op. 15

Moderato con moto
Passacaglia: Andante lento (un poco meno mosso)


R. STRAUSS (1864-1949)

Also sprach Zarathustra (“Thus Spake Zarathustra”), Op. 30

Concert Românesc (“Romanian Concerto”)

Born: May 28, 1923, Târnava-Sânmărtin (now Tîrnăveni), Romania | Died: June 12, 2006, Vienna
• Work composed: 1951
• Premiere: April 1, 1952, Hungarian Army Orchestra (radio broadcast)
• Instrumentation: 2 flutes (incl. piccolo), 2 oboes (incl. English horn), 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons, 3 horns, 2 trumpets, bass drum, cymbals a2, side drum, suspended cymbals, strings
• CSO notable performances: One previous subscription weekend | Premiere/Most recent: March 2009, Paavo Järvi conducting
• Duration: approx. 12 minutes

Postwar Hungary was not an easy place for young composers. The road they had to travel was extremely straight and narrow, defined by the confluence of various political and artistic constraints. Politically, these were the worst years of Stalinism when the doorbell could ring in the middle of the night and anyone with suspected bourgeois sympathies could be taken away to undisclosed locations. A composer had to sing the praises of the working classes day and night, and use as much folkloristic material as possible. Yet the idea that new concert music should be based on folk music predated Communism in Hungary, and had been advocated for decades by Béla Bartók and Zoltán Kodály, neither of whom were Communists. Bartók had died in his self-imposed American exile in 1945, but Kodály was very much alive, as the reigning spirit of Hungarian cultural life until his death in 1967.

Young composers seemed to have little choice but to follow in the footsteps of their elders. Yet György Ligeti, who had recently moved to Hungary from his native Romania, was not cut out to be an epigone. He dutifully collected and arranged folksongs, but in his hands, the material somehow sounded different. His first purely symphonic work, the Romanian Concerto, walks a fine line between mandatory folklorism and original ideas that already begin to challenge the system, however tentatively. The concerto’s melodies are very much in Romanian folk style, but no original folksongs seem to be quoted: Ligeti came up with some very skillful and utterly convincing imitations.

Five years after the composition of this work, Ligeti fled to the West where he became one of the leaders of the musical avant-garde; yet he retained a certain fondness for this early essay, so uncharacteristic of his later style. He allowed the concerto to be published and recorded, and in recent years, performances have been multiplying.

KEYNOTE. The four-movement concerto follows a slow-fast-slow-fast outline reminiscent of Bartók’s Music for Strings, Percussion and Celesta, although the movements follow one another without pauses. The opening “Andantino” resembles a colindă, or Romanian Christmas carol; it has the same typical melodic elements and mixed meters. First presented in unison, it is repeated with harmonies added, in different orchestrations. The second movement is an energetic folk dance, with a prominent violin solo that conjures up direct associations with Transylvanian village fiddlers.

In addition to the two horns in the orchestra, Ligeti required a third horn, to be seated separately, at a distance, echoing the first horn—an arrangement that dominates the third-movement “Adagio ma non troppo.” The composer further instructed the horn players to play natural overtones even if they don’t sound “in tune” according to the well-tempered system. He always retained his special love for “out-of-tune” harmonics, as we can see from such late works as the Violin Concerto (1992) and his final composition, the Hamburg Concerto for solo horn, string orchestra and four natural horns.

The last movement begins with a direct takeoff on the finale from Bartók’s Concerto for Orchestra. But the scurrying string figures are much more mysterious and more intensely chromatic than the corresponding passage in the Bartók, at times presaging Ligeti’s intricate “micro-polyphonies” from the 1960s. Then the dancing begins anew. The solo violin and the accompanying violin and viola with their open strings suggest a village band. At one point, the two violas, two cellos and two basses are instructed to play “quasi timpani,” that is, to create a percussive effect by plucking the strings very precisely, close to the bridge. As the excitement grows, the orchestra interjects some heavy down strokes coming at the most unexpected moments. Just before the end, the horns of the third movement are briefly recalled, only to be interrupted by the final downbeat.

—Peter Laki


Concerto No. 1 for Violin and Orchestra, Op. 15

• Born: November 22, 1913, Lowestoft, England | Died: December 4, 1976, Aldeburgh, England
• Work composed: November 1938–September 1939
• Premiere: March 28, 1940, Carnegie Hall with the New York Philharmonic, John Barbirolli conducting,
Antonio Brosa, violinist
• Instrumentation: solo violin, 3 flutes (incl. 2 piccolos), 2 oboes (incl. English horn), 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons, 4 horns, 3 trumpets, 3 trombones, tuba, timpani, snare drum, triangle, suspended cymbals, cymbals a2, glockenspiel, tenor drum, bass drum, harp, strings
• CSO notable performances: Three previous subscription weekends | Premiere: October 2006, Andrey Boreyko conducting, Hilary Hahn, violinist | Most recent: April 2013, Carlos Kalmar conducting, Simone Lamsma, violinist. Janine Jansen was soloist when this work was performed by the CSO, Paavo Järvi conducting, on its European tour in 2008.
Duration: approx. 34 minutes

One program note on the Britten Violin Concerto observes that the work was written during England’s build-up to World War II, and thus mirrors the anxiety he felt about the war. Others state that it was his response to the Loyalist defeat in the Spanish Civil War.

Particularly in the case of this work, the extra-musical attribution seems forced and unsubtle. The Britten Violin Concerto is no “war concerto”; one will wait in vain for military snare drums and trumpet fanfares; it contains no parody of goose-stepping soldiers like Stravinsky’s Symphony in Three Movements, nor any rousing and timpani-studded military maneuvers, like Shostakovich’s Seventh “Leningrad” Symphony, or George Antheil’s Fourth, subtitled “1942.” On the contrary—while storm clouds do appear, the predominant impression is that of a graceful lyricism, albeit tinged with melancholy. Britten was a devout pacifist, and he had fled England before writing the work partly because his sentiments were so out of step with those of his countrymen. If anything, the Concerto sounds not so much like a communal expression of fear, but an individual flight from the idea of war and those who urge it. In the later Sinfonia da Requiem and War Requiem, Britten would address the war directly, but at the moment, he had many other things on his mind.

For one thing, in 1935 he had fallen in with a heady poetry/drama crowd centered on the great W.H. Auden, and including novelist Christopher Isherwood and Montague Slater (who would become the librettist for Britten’s opera Peter Grimes). Such friends encouraged in the 22-year-old a franker assessment of his homosexuality, as well as reinforcing his pacifism, agnosticism and admiration of Communism. The sudden death of Britten’s mother in January 1937, from illness, was another freeing influence; she had stage-mothered him into an accelerated musical career, but he confided to his diaries that he couldn’t help but feel some relief at the absence of her controlling influence, and he now felt more comfortable expressing his sexuality. On March 6 he met a tenor named Peter Pears, who would become his lifelong companion. In August the success of his Variations on a Theme of Frank Bridge (Bridge had been his most sympathetic teacher) greatly increased his reputation, but a year later his Piano Concerto, played at the prestigious BBC Promenade Concerts under Sir Henry Wood, met with a distressing reception from friends and critics alike. The work was seen as campy, too clever and marked by “irritatingly smart vulgarity.”

When the 25-year-old Britten fled England for North America in April of 1939 with the sketches of a violin concerto in his valise, it is difficult to imagine which of many motivations was uppermost in his mind. Pacifists were not going to be suffered patiently in a country so mobilized against an evil enemy as England was against Hitler, and he would be pressed to join the military. Auden and Isherwood had already jumped ship themselves. Britten was moving toward an exclusive commitment to Pears, and putting an ocean between himself and some previous entanglements was more than convenient. Also thin-skinned and stung by reviews, he was leaving behind the scene of some acknowledged artistic failures and was searching for new inspiration in America’s burgeoning music scene. He and Pears landed in Montreal, visited Grand Rapids and New York City, and found Aaron Copland in Woodstock. Copland, just entering a period of increased fame with the success of his ballet Billy the Kid, had a salutary effect on Britten, who already admired his El Salón México. Copland too, however, was critical of Britten’s music so far, and told him that “he must search deeper for a more personal, more interesting idiom...good craftsmanship is not enough.”

Nevertheless, musical organizations of the new world, then as now, were excited to have a British wunderkind in their midst. Britten’s Variations on a Theme of Frank Bridge was performed by the New York Philharmonic soon after his arrival, to enthusiastic response. On September 29 from St. Jovite, Quebec, he wrote to a former lover that he had just completed the violin concerto on which he had been working since November. “[It] is at times like these,” he added, “that work is so important—that humans can think of other things than blowing each other up!... I try not to listen to the radio more than I can help.” Heifetz himself allegedly called the work unplayable, but Antonio Brosa, a Spanish violinist friend of Bridge who had premiered Britten’s own Suite for Violin and Piano in 1936, stepped forward to master it. It was also Brosa who had soloed in Alban Berg’s Violin Concerto at the ISCM festival in Barcelona in 1936, where Britten heard it; the work, with its finale on a similarly rising-scale theme, was doubtless part of the inspiration for Britten’s desire to write a work in the same genre.

Brosa premiered the Violin Concerto with John Barbirolli and the New York Philharmonic on March 28, 1940 at Carnegie Hall. The composer had been suffering a serious tonsil infection and only barely made it to the performance.

KEYNOTE. Although it opens misleadingly in F, following a Mahlerian practice of “progressive tonality,” the Concerto is ultimately in the key of D—not major or minor, but both at once, as the violin announces in its opening phrases. The first movement opens in the percussion with a premonition of a rhythmic ostinato figure that will run through the initial section; the rhythm of this figure was alleged by Brosa to be Spanish in origin, contributing to the theory that the piece refers to the Spanish Civil War. From the outset the solo part is highly virtuosic, not because of speed but because of the amount of time it spends in the very highest register. For all its chromaticism and wandering, the movement’s basic outline is simple: a second theme (now in the correct key of D) based on the common triad takes over the solo part and then the orchestra, after which the first major/minor theme returns, now in the orchestra with the violin playing the rhythmic ostinato. The closing solo takes the violin back up into the stratosphere, first to the highest D on the piano, and ultimately up to F-sharp.

The second movement is a driving scherzo filled with bracing syncopations. If one wanted to ascribe a program, an argument could be made here: after the first climax in the brass and percussion, in which the violin does not join, the orchestra seems to erupt repeatedly with calls for war and action, to which the violin responds in a calmer, more melancholic tone, as if urging peace. A protracted buildup in the orchestra leads to a long, thoughtful cadenza in which the soloist refers to the first movement’s main theme and runs through a panoply of emotions. The cadenza’s concluding upward scale leads directly into the third movement, a moody passacaglia based on a theme introduced by the trombones. This theme is based partly, though not consistently, on a scale of alternating whole- and half-steps, known to classical musicians as the “octotonic,” and to pop musicians as the “diminished,” scale—widely used by Stravinsky, among others. Nine variations ensue, leading to an extended coda in which the violin plays an emotive solo over slow chords in the orchestra. This final solo can’t decide between the F and F-sharp that would end the piece in minor or major, and finally closes with an inconclusive trill between them.

—Kyle Gann



Also sprach Zarathustra (“Thus Spake Zarathustra”), Op. 30

• Born: June 11, 1864, Munich | Died: September 8, 1949, Garmisch, Germany
• Work composed: February 4–August 24, 1896
• Premiere: November 27, 1896, Frankfurt, Strauss conducting
• Instrumentation: 4 flutes (incl. 2 piccolos), 3 oboes, English horn, 2 clarinets, E-flat clarinet, bass clarinet, 3 bassoons, contrabassoon, 6 horns, 4 trumpets, 3 trombones, 2 tubas, timpani, 2 harps, organ, bass drum, chimes, suspended cymbals, cymbals a2, glockenspiel, triangle, strings
• CSO notable performances: 12 previous subscription weekends | Premiere: November 1926, Fritz Reiner conducting | Most recent: October 2010, Paavo Järvi conducting
• Duration: approx. 35 minutes

Glorification of the individual was a fundamental tenet of 19th-century German romanticism. In music this idea originated with Beethoven—both the man and his compositions. The first major composer to break away from the patronage system, he saw himself primarily as an independent artist and only secondarily as a servant of nobility. His music was expressive of individual emotions and values to an unprecedented degree. Subsequent composers emulated Beethoven the free-spirited artist as they attempted music of ever increasing individuality. The idiosyncratic musical personality of Berlioz, the megalomania of Wagner, the unique world-view of Mahler and the vivid imagination of Strauss are just some expressions of romantic individuality.

Romanticism was primarily a literary movement, although it affected all the arts. Philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche (1844–1900) was a romantic. He was deeply influenced by the ideas and the personality of Wagner, at first respecting and later rejecting the composer-dramatist’s values. One of Nietzsche’s major works was the book Also sprach Zarathustra (“Thus Spake Zarathustra”), in which the ancient seer Zarathustra, or Zoroaster, delivers a series of pronouncements for humankind. Nietzsche glorifies the individual in the figure of the prophet and also in Zarathustra’s concept of the Übermensch, or Superman (not to be confused with the 20th-century Superhero character), a recurrent theme throughout the book:

And Zarathustra spake thus unto the people: I teach you the Superman. Man is something that is to be surpassed. What have ye done to surpass man? All beings hitherto have created something beyond themselves: and ye want to be the ebb of that great tide, and would rather go back to the beast than surpass man? What is the ape to man? A laughing-stock, a thing of shame. And just the same shall man be to the Superman: a laughing-stock, a thing of shame. Ye have made your way from the worm to man, and much within you is still worm. Once were ye apes, and even yet man is more of an ape than any of the apes. Even the wisest among you is only a disharmony and hybrid of plant and phantom. But do I bid you become phantoms or plants? Lo, I teach you the Superman! The Superman is the meaning of the earth. Let your will say: the Superman shall be the meaning of the earth!

Zarathustra’s striving for perfection and transcendence is not really an idea of the sixth century B.C., when Zoroaster actually lived, but rather it is related to the late 19th-century concept of progress and the individual. To us such ideas may seem naïve, they once spoke of very real cultural concerns. And they appealed to a composer such as Richard Strauss, who saw himself as a master craftsman transcending his past and leading music on to ever greater heights. He was the composer who in 1898 had celebrated himself as genius in Ein Heldenleben (“A Hero’s Life”). And it was he who dared to compose a symphonic poem around the figure of Nietzsche’s hero.

Today, Strauss’s Zarathustra has a new meaning. It is a symbol no longer of the Superman, but of knowledge and mystery. The source of this symbol is not a book written in 1885, but a Hollywood film of the late 1960s. Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey used as a recurrent leitmotif the opening 20 measures of the tone poem. The music is associated with the mysterious monolith that appears on the earth in prehistoric times, on the moon at the beginning of the space age and on Jupiter in an infinity beyond time. The monolith seems to contain all knowledge of the past and future, of good and evil. The popularity of this movie, and of the music associated with it, has replaced Strauss’s dated symbolism with something appropriate to the late 20th century. One possible conclusion to draw from this unexpected dénouement of Zarathustra’s musical story is that Strauss’s composition is philosophical, but that the philosophy it “expresses” is independent of the music.

But just how philosophical is Strauss’s tone poem? The composer, who was known to brag that he could portray anything in the orchestra, understood that music is not a medium of philosophy. It could reflect the mood of Nietzsche’s work and the character of Zarathustra, and it could even depict a series of events. But there is no way music can convey complex ideas. Strauss realized music’s limitations:

I did not intend to write philosophical music or portray Nietzsche’s great work musically. I meant rather to convey in music an idea of the evolution of the human race from its origin, through the various phases of development, religious as well as scientific, up to Nietzsche’s idea of the Superman. The whole symphonic poem is intended as my homage to the genius of Nietzsche, which found its greatest exemplification in his book Also sprach Zarathustra.

According to Strauss’s biographer, conductor Norman Del Mar, the tone poem responds to the book in three ways. (1) Strauss selected eight of Nietzsche’s 80 chapter headings to suggest sections of the music. Each chapter is Zarathustra’s brief discourse on a particular idea. (2) The opposition found throughout the book between immutable nature and the progress of man is symbolized by the conflict between two keys, the “natural” key of C major (no sharps, no flats) and the distant B major (five sharps). (3) The evolution of man from primitive being to Superman became the metaphor for the form of the entire tone poem.

KEYNOTE. The music begins in the depths of darkness, with a low rumble in string basses, contrabassoon, organ and bass drum. Then comes the sunrise, as four trumpets intone the Nature theme—a simple three-note rising figure. After day breaks with a tremendous C major cadence, the orchestra begins to sound the Spirit motive—also a rising figure, this time four notes of a triad. Significantly, the key shifts to B minor. After the Spirit motive is expanded to a complete theme in pizzicato low strings, two horns intone a quotation from the Gregorian chant Credo. This statement of belief is ironic, representing the dreaded (to Nietzsche and Strauss) dogma of the church, which supposedly has prevented man from spiritual evolution.

The strings begin an adagio that corresponds to Zarathustra’s pronouncement “Of the Backworldsmen.” This title plays on the more common name, “backwoodsmen.” Nietzsche depicts the naïve religious faith of simple people as an impediment to spiritual growth. Zarathustra states that he once believed in God, and that then he saw the world as “colored vapors before the eyes of a divinely dissatisfied one.… The God whom I created was human work and human madness, like all the gods!” God and the heavenly world were created by weak and perishing men. The backworldsmen believe in God as salvation because their bodies are sickly, whereas Zarathustra preaches the healthy body as the true meaning of the earth. Strauss’s music is an expression “of devout fervor, depicting the naïve emotional comfort through belief in a benevolent divinity, however man-inspired,” according to Del Mar.

After an ecstatic climax, we arrive at a section titled “Of the Great Longing.” Zarathustra proclaims the independence of the soul, to which man has given all. After rushing figures in the strings, winds and harps, a section called “Of Joys and Passions” commences. The music attempts to illustrate Zarathustra’s ideas on how passions lead to virtues. During the Joys and Passions music, the trombones blare forth a new motive, the Satiety theme.

The return of the Spirit motive in the low strings, as other instruments continue the Joys and Passions music, announces the section titled “The Song of the Grave.” Zarathustra cries out against lost youth and proclaims the triumph of the will.

The music dies down for a section labeled “Of Science.” Strauss depicts learning with a learned fugue. Suggesting the keys of both C and B, incorporating the Nature motive, and containing all 12 tones of the chromatic scale, the fugue subject is stated again and again in the low strings. Subsequently, the music incongruously suggests a dance, but, after interruptions by the Nature theme, the fugue resumes, accompanied by rushing figures. The resumption section is called “The Convalescent.”

Zarathustra sheds all external values and looks within himself for perfection. This intense search causes a catharsis, described with extraordinarily rich orchestration. The prophet must recover. Now he understands his mission on earth, and he descends once again from his cave to proclaim the Superman.

The ensuing section, “The Dance Song,” grows out of the Nature motive. Nietzsche’s chapter tells how Zarathustra comes upon some maidens dancing. He sings to them of the fickleness of wisdom and of life itself. The music is, surprisingly, a Viennese waltz, which is developed at great length. Perhaps Strauss is trying to suggest, beneath this incongruous façade, that the Superman is not a lofty or abstract being but resides within ourselves even in our most mundane activities. The music remains firmly in the key of C until it finally slips to B and then back: this waltz belongs to both nature and the human spirit.

The waltz builds to the final, climactic section: “The Song of the Night Wanderer” (Nietzsche’s preliminary title for his penultimate chapter, which he later renamed “The Drunken Song”). Del Mar explains:

Zarathustra is surrounded by his disciples and interrupts their joyful dancing and demonstrations of affection by passing through a kind of drunken fit. He recovers just as the Great Bell begins to toll and quietly interprets the solemn strokes by rhapsodizing line by line around the poem “O Man, Take Heed.”

The tone poem closes with a peaceful coda, disturbed only by the Satiety motive. The tonality is B major, the key of man’s progress toward the Superman, but chords belonging to C major, the key of unchangeable nature, intrude toward the end. The actual ending is an astonishing stroke of musical imagination. Pizzicato C major arpeggios in the low strings alternate with sustained B major chords in the high winds and strings. Isolated C’s have the final word, but ultimate resolution has been denied.

Del Mar again:

Nietzsche ends on a note of climax with the idea of “Eternal Recurrence.” Zarathustra emerges from his cave in the last lines, glowing and strong in the spirit of a new dawn for his life’s work. Such a conception has no place in Strauss’s musical scheme, and he closes his tone poem in a mood of utter tranquility, but showing the conflict between Man and Nature basically unresolved and as irreconcilable as the two nearest and yet harmonically so distant keys of B and C.

— Jonathan D. Kramer